Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) managed to win the first leg of the AFC Cup ASEAN zone semi-final 3-2 against Ceres-Negros FC on Wednesday night but the general mood around the stadium after the match was one of worry as the Philippines side managed to grab two very important away goals.
Despite leading 1-0 at the start of the match, the first half ended 2-2 as Ceres showed that they aren't a side to be discounted. Playing on the break, Ceres benefited from the lack of defensive numbers on JDT's side through goals from Fernando Rodriguez and Bienvenido Maradon.
Assistant head coach Ismail Ibrahim told during the post-match press conference that the opponent's fast-paced counters were hard to deal with and highlighted the big responsibility on Afiq Fazail who was outnumbered in midfield
"First of all I would like to thank the players for giving 100%. We know Ceres are a tough team and they play fast. We gave them too much space and they scored two on the counter attack. But we still came back to win."
"As a defensive midfielder, he has to do the dirty work. Safiq [Rahim] and Gabby [Gabriel Guerra] were more on the offensive. He has to win everything at the back. He has to win the second balls and Ceres scored because he couldn’t do that. That’s what we need to improve. Maybe we need to change in there for the second leg," said Ismail.
Afiq wasn't the only young player under the microscope as Dominic Tan also had a tough match. The centre back doesn't get as much game time as Afiq and in a highly-charged regional encounter - it was probably too much for the inexperienced Dominic to handle.
"In my opinion, the opponents and pressure was too big for him [Dominic]. Still a lot for him to learn mentally and improve especially when there are fans getting on the back of him," added Ismail.
In the match - Farizal Marlias, Dominic Tan, Azrif Nasrulhaq and S. Kunanlan all received yellow cards but surprisingly there were none for the away side. It's a point of contention for Ismail as he highlighted the difference in treatment with what Farizal received compared to Roland Muller at the opposite end.
"We cannot say much because he [referee] sees what happens. But sometimes we question when their players don’t get card but our players do. When our keeper waste time, he gets carded but when the Ceres keeper do it, there’s no card," explained Ismail.
JDT eventually won the match in the second half when Hazwan Bakri's deflected shot found the back of the net to settle an exciting first leg between the two sides.